Brought To You By Ron Cook

Most of us have spent some time recently speaking through a mask, keeping six feet away from the next person, and depending on eye contact to communicate emotions as well as words. This has been a weird period in world history, to say the least. On the other hand, it has also offered us a chance to hit the reset button on communication. What are the essential elements of speaking and listening that help us to be effective communicators as well as good listeners? What did we lose during this time of “social distancing?” What did we learn during this time? I hope we can take advantage of this opportunity to redefine ourselves while it is still fresh.

In Louisiana, people speak TO each other. In other places I have lived, casual conversation was not an ART, let alone a valued activity. The first thing that we can understand is that communication is only about ten percent “words.”  In other words, (pun intended), the words we say have a very minor role in the act of communication. That means around ninety percent of what we communicate is NOT with words. If we understand that around eighty percent of our emotions are stored outside of our brain throughout our body, we can better see how just words are not thoughts or emotions. Speech has become a monotone activity for some people. I have noticed how, in Louisiana, people often speak in a sing-song cadence to each other. The notion of a “southern accent”  is just a way of saying that people in the south speak with expression. 

Speaking involves many aspects that all work together, in an amazingly choreographed dance of images and sounds that combine to communicate with others. Language is just one aspect. Let’s take a look at some other areas of speaking that create the whole picture of expression and linguistics. 

  • Eye contact – It has been noted that “… the eyes are the lamp of the body (Matthew 2:22-23). So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” Another version of this phrase is: “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” In the teachings of the Bible we can understand that the soul is the combination of the will, the emotions, and the intellect. Experts in eye movement can tell where a person is getting information by the way the eyes move. When we speak to another, looking them in the eye is extremely important. If we can’t look a person in the eyes, we tend to lose their attention. In fact, if they start looking around at other things or people, you have already lost their focus. It really is amazing how little it takes to distract us. Rule #1 – Look people in the eyes when you speak, and watch if their eyes are looking at you. The brain is set up largely for the visual realm. Lose that, and the conversation is basically over.

  • Volume – Can your audience (of one or more) hear what you are saying? Adjusting your volume to the proper level, for the venue within which you are speaking, is absolutely essential. Mumbling or shouting, first of all, distracts from what you are saying; and secondly, the listener may just “turn you off.” Speaking Rule #2 – use proper volume. You can tell if your volume is correct if the person you are speaking to isn’t sequencing  their eyes (too loud), or leaning one ear in closer to hear (too quiet).

  • Tone – Is your voice pleasant? Have you ever recorded yourself, and then listened? We don’t really hear our own voice as others do because we are “inside” our own head, not standing outside listening. Listen to your voice in a recording. Does it seem pleasant, or nasal, or squeaky, or gruff, or harsh, or soothing? Maybe get brave and ask someone you know to tell you, honestly, how your voice sounds. This may be a brave thing to do, yet could be helpful. Speaking Rule #3 – What is the tone of your voice? Would you enjoy listening to yourself speak?

  • Facial Expression – Try to be aware of what your face is doing while you speak. Facial expressions are powerful sources of expression. In fact, a smile will automatically make your listener feel more comfortable, and even stronger; while a frown will automatically make your listener weaker, and less comfortable. I’m sure your father did not smile while he was chewing you out for putting a dent in the family car…(Mine didn’t :-/ ). Just check sometimes, and watch the difference between the appearance of a person when they smile, and then when they frown. I believe that we are even more handsome/attractive when we smile!  Rule #4 – Be aware of what your face is saying. It’s actually speaking more than your words.

  • Pace – Some people speak so quickly that the listener loses track of what is being said. If your listener is frequently asking you to repeat what you’ve said, you might be talking too fast. On the other hand, speaking too slowly is also a communication fumbler. If your listener is starting to look around, tap their foot, or look at their watch, you might want to pick up the pace. Once again, it’s helpful to record yourself, and see if your pace is easy to listen to, and to follow. Rule #5 – Check your pace. Keep up, don’t run past the message, but don’t dawdle.

  • Body Language – While your mouth is speaking, the rest of your body is talking as well. Where are your hands, are you in an open position (arms not crossed, or turned kind of away from your listener), are you fidgeting around or standing or sitting in a way that shows interest, and a desire to interact? There’s another opportunity for a self evaluation … in a mirror, or have someone videotape you in a normal conversation. Take a look at yourself. Would you be listening to that person? Rule #6 – Check what your body is doing while you speak. Staying open, uncrossed, engaging with your body language helps your listener to listen with more interest. Are your body movements helping your speaking?  Maybe record yourself and turn off the volume. Watch your body movements. How does that look?

  • Word Selection – the old joke goes something like … What do you call someone who can speak three languages? Answer = Tri-lingual. What do you call someone who can speak two languages? Answer = Bi-lingual. What do you call someone who can only speak one language? Answer = American (and we don’t often speak it very well). The truth is that the common way English is spoken has gotten lazy and careless. The age of email, texting, and whatever other form of language short-cutting has created an abbreviated form of communication. How many of us read to increase our vocabulary? How many of us use new vocabulary words in our speaking or writing? How many of us still do crossword puzzles? Slang has become more popular, using words that mean one thing, to describe something else. Once the word, “stupid,” was used as a common form of being cool, or popular. I taught high school for almost five decades … new kinds of slang words seemed to slip into the vernacular every year. Kids start it … adults pick it up. Common slang words today include: lit, extra, salty, to ghost someone, summer girl, to flex, lowkey and highkey, shook, tea. We all have a vast array of words we could use to speak. Choosing simple, common words in speaking can create boredom and lazy talk. Some cultures prize talking as a way to socialize. Their words are colorful, interesting, and often precise. Speaking Rule #7 – Spice up your words to become more interesting, correct, and descriptive. You and your listener will appreciate the effort.

  • Proximity – Most people are “space-conscious.” It seems that some areas of the country, like New York and some of the East Coast, are comfortable with a minimum amount of space between the person speaking, and the person listening. Other parts of the country, possibly Texas and other large area states, are more comfortable with more space between people. An arm’s length is often a good judge of distance. You can pick up your listener’s comfort level by watching if they draw near you, or step away a little. Be sensitive to this. Some of us are not even aware of this “space” thing, but we do have our own comfort levels. With us older folks, reduced hearing ability can require us to edge in a bit to hear the conversation. Rule #8 – Give your listener the space they need to feel comfortable in your conversation. It is the speaker’s responsibility to recognize, and be aware of this. This is like the rule in snow skiing that the uphill skier has to watch out for the skiers down the hill. 

There are a few more areas of speaking we want to talk about, but perhaps we have covered enough for this month. Next month let’s finish the subject of Speaking and then move on to the area of Listening. Listening will be a shorter subject because it is more passive, yet has some very important components.

If we all try to improve our speaking in some of these areas, perhaps we will enjoy the art of speaking more fully. This is an art form in Louisiana. 

Thanks for listening…:-)

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